How to Start a Butterfly Garden | The Best Butterfly Plants

Image of a monarch butterfly on a flower in a garden with a banner that reads how to start a butterfly garden.

Tips on how to attract butterflies to a garden and how to create a habitat for monarch butterflies and other types of butterflies.

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Here are some tips on how to attract butterflies to a garden while providing food and a habitat to support them.

As summer winds to a close, you may start to notice a progression of monarch butterflies making their way through your town. These butterflies are famous for making a long migration to spend the fall and winter months in a warmer environment.

Other types of butterflies are also busy in the garden, looking for nectar or other food sources before cold weather brings a close to the summer season. You may be able to identify these butterflies using a picture guide book for butterflies.

Some of the most well-known or popular types of butterflies include:

  • Fritillary butterflies
  • Monarch butterflies
  • Mourning Cloak butterflies
  • Painted Lady butterflies
  • Red Admiral butterflies
  • Sulphur butterflies
  • Swallowtail butterflies

In this post, we’ll explore some ways to provide food and habitat for these and other types of butterflies.

Although summer is the best time to see butterflies, fall is also a great time to attract butterflies to a garden. It’s not too late to support monarch butterflies that are preparing for a southward journey, nor is it too late to provide food sources for other butterflies that may visit the garden.

How to Make a Butterfly Garden

Creating a butterfly garden can help make your yard, patio, or balcony a destination for butterflies.

Reasons to Make a Butterfly Garden

  1. Butterflies can help pollinate your plants. As butterflies flit from flower to flower, they may help to transfer pollen that can help to pollinate garden plants.
  2. Help to save endangered butterflies. Some types of butterflies are endangered, and by providing food and habitat for them, you can help to continue their existence.
  3. Butterflies can add beauty and interest to a garden. Watching colorful butterflies fly around a landscape or garden can be a relaxing and enjoyable thing to do on a summer day.

You can create a simple butterfly garden in a few easy steps, and here are some tips on how to do it.

1—Select a site for your butterfly garden.

Choose a site that receives some sunlight, but is also provides some protection from wind and rain. If your yard has trees and shrubs, these can provide spaces for butterflies to nest and rest in the garden.

2—Choose butterfly-friendly plants and flowers.

When thinking about your landscape design, consider planting a few plants and flowers that are butterfly friendly.

The best butterfly plants will depend on what part of the country you reside. Here is a list of plants that are commonly used to attract, host, or feed butterflies, but you will need to determine if these plants are good for your garden, needs, or area.

Popular butterfly plants include milkweed, phlox, and sedum (Stonecrop). Cosmos, sunflowers, and zinnias are also be good butterfly plants.

Butterfly plants are often divided into plants that host butterflies (host plants) and plants that feed butterflies (nectar plants). Host plants are used by butterflies for things like laying eggs, while nectar plants are used to feed.

Many butterfly plants are beautiful and useful, but some of the plants have self-sowing or wild characteristics that can take over a landscape or area of the yard. Do your research to determine what plant varieties may be best for you to plant in the yard.

  • Achillea. With it’s fern-like leaves, achillea is a popular nectar plant for butterflies. It is also attractive to other beneficial insects.
  • Agastache. A member of the mint family, agastache is a popular nectar plant for many different types of butterflies.
  • Blazing Star. Blazing Star (Liatris) is a nectar plant for a number of butterfly varieties, including swallowtail butterflies.
  • Goldenrod. Goldenrod (Solidago) is a great, late season nectar plant for both butterflies and hummingbirds.
  • Joe-Pye Weed. Joe-Pye Weed (Eupatorium) is a good nectar plant for many types of butterflies, including monarch butterflies, swallowtail butterflies, and fritillary butterflies.
  • Monarda (Bee Balm). Monarda is a butterfly plant that provduces tubular flowers that are popular with butterflies. They come in a variety of colors, including red, pink, and purple, and are great for landscaping. Some hybrid Monarda plants have been bred to have features like better disease resistant and a neater growth habit. Monarda may serve as both a nectar plant and as a host plant for some butterfly varieties.
  • Rosemary. Fragrant rosemary can be good for attracting butterflies to a garden.
  • Sedum (Stonecrop). Sedum acts as a nectar plant and as a host plant for butterflies. These plants are also great for xeric landscaping.

3—Provide a place to puddle.

Butterflies like to hang around damp places. A shallow pan filled with moist sand can create a nice puddler for butterflies. Add just enough water to keep the the sand moist. Rocks can provide a place for butterflies to perch while gathering moisture. Butterflies will appreciate having a cool, moist place to land during hot days.

It’s really that simple. Butterflies need a good source, plants to lay their eggs on, and a moist area to rest and recuperate.

Learn to recognize the butterflies that visit your garden. Also learn what their larvae, or caterpillars, look like, so that you don’t accidentally remove one, thinking that it’s a pest. Butterflies lay their eggs on specific plants that the caterpillars depend on to survive.

Herb plants like dill, fennel, and parsley are popular food choices for hungry butterfly larvae. These young insects can have voracious appetites. Plant enough so that you and the butterfly larvae have some to eat.

Limiting the use of pesticides in a yard or garden can help to ensure the survival of your favorite butterflies and succeeding generations.

What Do Butterflies Eat?

Butterflies rely on nectar from flowers as a source of food. They will also eat things like overripe fruit and sweet drinks on occasion.

Providing butterfly food and habitat during spring and summer will give you the longest period of time to enjoy butterfly visitors to your garden.

But fall is also an important time to provide food for butterflies. Many late summer and fall blooming flowers are great sources of nectar for butterflies and other flying insects.

Flowers That Provide Nectar for Butterflies

These flowers provide nectar to feed different types of butterflies. They also add beauty and color to a garden.

  • Aster (Aster spp.) Asters are great for attracting butterflies to a garden. In particular, the New England aster is great for providing nectar for butterflies during the late summer / early fall season.
  • Black-Eyed Susan (Rudbeckia hirta). Sunny yellow Black-Eyed Susans are a great plant to use for attracting butterflies to the garden. Some varieties of this plant will self-sow readily if left to their own devices.
  • Blanket Flower (Gaillardia grandiflora). Blanket flower is both easy to grow and popular among butterflies.
  • Butterfly Milkweed (Asclepias tuberosa). Monarch butterflies look for milkweed plants during the summer to feed and to lay their eggs on. Milkweed leaves are the only leaves that monarch butterfly caterpillars will eat.
  • Coreopsis (Coreopsis). Coreopsis can be a good plant to use for attracting butterflies to a garden.
  • Cosmos (Cosmos). Tall cosmos flowers make good border plants, and they are also popular among butterflies.
  • Joe Pye Weed (Eutrichium). Joe Pye Weed makes a good nectar plant for butterflies.
  • Lantana (Lantana camara). The tiny, colorful flowers of lantana are a great way to attract butterflies to a garden. Lantana are a great garden flower—easy to grow, heat tolerant, and the plants typically bloom until fall.
  • Marigold (Tagetes patula and Tagetes tenuifolia). Marigold are hardy, long-blooming plants that attract butterflies and may also help to discourage some bad bugs from bothering your plants in the garden.
  • Mexican Sunflower (Tithonia). Mexican sunflowers are one of the most visited plants in our garden. These flowers are also great for adding beauty, color, and structure to a garden. Mexican sunflowers tend to produce a large, tall plant. Plant shorter plants, like purple coneflower or Shasta daisies, in front of it to create a layered effect in a butterfly garden.
  • Purple Coneflower (Echinacea). Coneflower is also known as echinacea. Look for these hardy flowers at your local garden center or plant nursery. You can also often order coneflower plants online.
  • Shasta Daisy (Leucanthemum x superbum). Shasta daisies can help to brighten up a garden landscape, and they may attract butterflies, too.
  • Stonecrop. “Autumn Joy” sedum or stonecrop can be a great bloom to provide nectar for butterflies late in the season.
  • Sunflowers. Sunflowers are a great plant for butterflies. These hardy plants bloom all summer and provide nectar to migrating butterflies during the fall.
  • Yarrow (Achillea). Yarrow varieties with fern-like leaves are popular among butterflies and some beneficial insects.
  • Zinnia (Zinnia elegans). Brightly colored zinnias are easy to grow, heat tolerant, and they are attractive to many types of butterflies that visit the garden.

Herb plants like dill, fennel, and parsley are great for feeding butterfly larvae, especially black swallowtail butterflies. Monarch butterflies lay their eggs on milkweed, and this is the only plant that their caterpillars will eat.

Do some research to find out what plants best support the larvae (caterpillars) of the butterflies that inhabit your area. This helps the species to reproduce and survive from year to year.

This is just a sample of plants and flowers that may attract butterflies to a garden. Do your research to discover plants that may grow well in your garden and also provide food for butterflies.

Some gardeners plant butterfly bush to help attract butterflies to their garden. But some sources suggest that these plants may attract butterflies away from other plants, including native plants, that require pollination in an area. Do your research when deciding whether or not to add butterfly bush to a garden.

In general, some of the easiest flowers to grow to attract butterflies include cosmos, lantana, purple coneflowers, and zinnias. For fast results, start with plants from a garden center and plant these in your garden.

What Else Do Butterflies Eat?

In addition to flower nectar, you may find butterflies eating sweet, mushy foods, especially overripe fruit. Things like soft apples, orange slices, and mashed banana may attract butterflies. Sugar water is another source of food and nourishment for them.

  • Soft apple slices. Soft, browning apples can be a popular food for butterflies.
  • Orange slices. Some gardeners may have luck attracting butterflies with orange slices.
  • Mashed bananas.
  • Sugar water.

One thing to keep in mind is that other flying insects or wildlife may be attracted to the butterfly food or feeding station. You may wish to locate butterfly food and feeding stations away from areas where people or pets tend to work, play, or congregate.

Monarch Butterflies

For many gardeners and butterfly enthusiasts, monarch butterflies inhabit their own special category.

Why Are Monarch Butterflies Considered to be So Special?

Monarch butterflies are famous for their seasonal migration pattern. Monarch butterflies may fly up to 100 miles per day as they fly south for the winter.

What Do Monarch Butterflies Eat?

Monarch butterflies depend on the nectar of many flowers, but monarch butterfly caterpillars can only eat the leaves of milkweed.

The need for nectar becomes especially apparent during fall migration. Fall-blooming flowers, like New England aster, Mexican sunflower, purple coneflower, and zinnias can provide much-needed nectar for migratory butterflies.

This post presented tips on how to provide food and habitat that can help attract butterflies to a garden.

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  • Photo in title image by Meritt Thomas / Unsplash
  • Photos are for illustrative purposes only.

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